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Beyond the Binary: Navigating the Workplace as a Non-Binary Individual

Posted by Emily Moore

Last Updated October 11, 2019
|12 min read

People often find comfort in black-and-white thinking. While choosing from two clearly defined categories might seem easy, the truth is, it rarely serves you well. Rather than black and white, the world is largely composed of shades of gray, or even different colors entirely — this is especially true when it comes to gender. To apply this-or-that thinking to gender is to deny the existence and experiences of a broad range of individuals: those who are genderqueer, non-binary, agender, gender-nonconforming or anything between or outside the male/female gender spectrum.

If you identify as a member of one of those groups, you may be all too familiar with that sort of thinking, including at work. It’s not always easy to be an LGBTQ+ individual in the workplace, and identifying outside of the traditional gender spectrum comes with its own unique challenges. You might find your pronouns, attire and expression being invalidated, unintentionally or not, by your colleagues.

The good news? The increased visibility of non-binary identities means that more companies and employees are opening up their minds. So if you’re a gender-nonconforming individual, or just an ally, there are more opportunities for you to bring your authentic self to work than ever. But how, exactly, do you go about doing that?

We chatted with Sam Brandt, a Technical Writer at life insurance startup Haven Life who is genderqueer and has openly identified as such in their last two workplaces. Our conversation below covers advocating for yourself in the workplace, evaluating companies for inclusion and how to support your trans and gender-nonconforming colleagues at work — here are the highlights.

Glassdoor: Can you talk a little bit about how being a genderqueer, non-binary individual has impacted your career journey thus far?

Sam Brandt: I’ve identified as genderqueer since college, but I only decided to change my pronouns in 2015. That was the first thing that I did that affected not only how other people talk to me, but how I’m talked about. When I came out and started to change my pronouns, though, I didn't do it at the company where I worked at the time. I'd had several indications that it wouldn’t really go over well, and that it would be asking a lot from the leadership team to try and get them on my side. So I held off, and then around that time I moved to New York City.

After I moved to New York, I put my pronouns on my resume and on my LinkedIn profile because I wanted to make it very clear to wherever I applied that these are my pronouns and if you question whether or not you want to hire me because of it, I don't even want to hear from you. If you think that's going to be too difficult for you, don't even call me, because I wanted to bring my entire self to work. I had a good experience with all of my coworkers at the company I ended up working for — I wasn't afraid of using my pronouns and I didn't have any problems.

Then I was actually recruited to Haven Life, which was cool because they already knew about my pronouns and they wanted to make sure I was comfortable. I actually had a brief conversation with the head of our people and culture team and she asked if I had any questions or if I had anything I wanted to talk about — they made sure that I knew I could ask, and they were on my side.

Glassdoor: That’s great to hear. What has working at Haven Life been like since that initial interview experience?

Sam Brandt: I started on January 2nd, and they sent a little blurb about me on Slack that included my pronouns and a few fun facts about myself. It was on a day where a lot of people were still out of town for the holidays, though. After a month or two, I felt like I was getting stared at a lot. I was having to have the pronoun correction conversation a lot so I went to Janna, the Head of People & Culture, and told her I thought we could do something about it. She sent an email to all the tech leads asking them to talk to everyone in their group and say something like, “We have a new employee and they use these pronouns. Can you try to be aware of it?” which was awesome.

Janna and her team also started putting their pronouns in their email signatures, which was great. And then I suggested to them that we put pronouns in our face gallery, which is an image gallery of everyone at the company with bios included. That was amazing because it wasn’t just singling out my bio as different — everyone's got their pronouns in theirs. People here want to do the right thing. If I have to correct anybody, they always apologize and we just move forward. It's been a really good experience.

Not every person you look at may identify in the way that you see them. 

Glassdoor: Have you always taken such an active role in educating your colleagues about gender identity, or is it something you’ve had to work up to over time?

Sam Brandt: I've always been in employee resource groups for queer and trans employees, but it was only with my own pronoun change that I've had to really become an advocate. Within employee resource groups you do events and things, but getting people to use the right pronoun for you can be an everyday challenge. I don't always correct people. I'm not talking to every barista that says “Ma'am, can I help you?” or “Sir, can I get something for you?” I don't have the time for that. But at work, I see all these people 40 or more hours a week. It's important to me to make sure not only that they know this about me, but that I create a space where anyone who comes in after me doesn’t see it as quite as much of a challenge — that more people know that some people use different or alternative pronouns.

So it is something I've worked up to over time, but I had a lot of help and that is so important. It makes it easier to step forward in confidence and say, “This is who I am,” and know that I have the backing of the people here. People here are open and respectful and on my side, which is not always the case, and that can really help make someone more comfortable advocating for themselves.

Glassdoor: Deciding whether or not to come out in the workplace can be tough. In your experience, what are a few signs that a company is likely to be accepting and supportive? Conversely, what are some red flags that a company will NOT be accepting or supportive?

Sam Brandt: You can always ask questions in your interviews and you should, because you're shopping around just as much as they are. Find out if they have an employee resource group or if they have gender-neutral or all-gender restrooms available. That's one thing I'm lucky for here, we have a gender-neutral single bathroom. It's nice because having to make that conscious decision of going into a restroom that isn’t aligned with my gender is something I deal with all the time, and I didn't realize how much of a relief it was to not have to think about it. You can also ask if they cover medical transition costs and if anyone at the company has transitioned or come out before. One of the things that made me comfortable at my last company was that I knew that two women had come out and transitioned before I got there so there were two other trans people at the company.

Another thing that people can do is use their base instincts. Think about how comfortable you are in you interview. How do people introduce themselves when they meet you? Do they add their pronoun, or is it listed somewhere? Do they seem weirded out when you add your pronoun? If the people interviewing you sort of blow by your pronouns and your identity, they're likely going to continue to be uncomfortable. Sometimes a company that says all the right things will still have employees that don't treat you well, or a company that says the wrong thing may be staffed with employees who care a lot, so it's not simple. I say trust your gut and also know that your experience as a non-binary person or gender-fluid person is valid.

Glassdoor: Of course, coming out is an experience that’s always unique to the individual — but do you have any broad pieces of advice or words of wisdom for individuals who are in the process of doing so?

Sam Brandt: Coming out in the workplace is about bringing your whole self to work. You're valuable — they're hiring you not just for your job experience or skill set but for your knowledge, including your knowledge about yourself. Don't be afraid to see that as a value that you bring to the table. If you decide to come out and you want to make changes in your organization, find people who are allies at the company. It's really easy to burn out if you try to deal with pushback by yourself, and it will make you feel stronger to have people who you can go to, even if it's just to vent when you're struggling.

You're going to have days where it seems really difficult, and you're going to be tasked with people who consistently get it wrong. That doesn’t mean they aren't trying, though — some people get scared. I have a very nice coworker who misgendered me the first moment I met her, but she had no way of knowing — I'm bad at remembering to add my pronouns as part of an introduction — and I said, oh, no, actually my pronouns are they, them. She froze over, apologized, felt really bad and then avoided me for four months because she was so embarrassed. There are a few jerks out there you're going to encounter and that's tough, but a lot of times people do want to do the right thing — they want to treat you with respect and when they mess up, they're mortified. I think just recognizing that it's mostly about them and not about me has really helped.

We should broaden our understanding of each other and the world, even if some changes challenge you.

Glassdoor: Some people want to be supportive but are unsure how to do so. What do you think are some of the best ways employees can show up as allies for their trans and gender-nonconforming colleagues?

Sam Brandt: For individuals, I would say introduce yourself with your pronouns, put your pronouns in your Twitter bio, put them in your email signature. Putting your pronouns out there shows that you understand that pronouns matter and they're not just something you can assume about each other. Then, just accept that you might have to be corrected over and over again. It's not only frustrating for you, it's frustrating for the person. Everybody feels differently, but for me being misgendered is like listening to music and someone plays an incredibly wrong note.

I talked with that same coworker who panicked and then avoided me because she felt so bad — she told me that she didn't want to mess up. Her husband suggested that she tell him a story about me every day to practice using the right pronouns. My heart warmed so much when she told me that. Another friend told me that he would just stop dead in the middle of a sentence when he got my pronouns wrong and just repeat the whole sentence again with the correct pronouns. It’s about being deliberate and thinking before you make assumptions. When people started coming out more about their sexual orientation in the workplace, people had to learn that not every man they work with is married to a woman, and vice versa. It’s the same way with gender — not every person you look at may identify in the way that you see them. 

Glassdoor: What about employers — how can they create a sense of inclusion and belonging for trans and gender-nonconforming employees?

Sam Brandt: For employers, I’d say think about gender-neutral bathrooms, transitioning policies, what your health plan includes and adding pronouns in bios, introductions and email signatures, and then making sure your human resources people are advocates for their employees. I also think that when companies are selecting partners or vendors, they should ask, “What do you do for your employees? How do you help everyone at your company come to work as themselves, or help affirm your consumers?” Companies can use their leverage, their power, their money to be advocates for their employees.

Glassdoor: Is there anything else on your mind right now?

Sam Brandt: I think it's easier than people think to make their non-binary, gender non-conforming, genderqueer and trans coworkers feel respected. Maybe it takes a little extra thought before you speak — a little more revision — but I don't think that's a bad thing. Many people want to act like everything we do should be easy, and if it's not easy, we shouldn't actively challenge it because we don't want to be a burden. But that's not what I want. I think we should broaden our understanding of each other and the world, even if some changes challenge you.

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